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Without a radical shift in public opinion, Scotland will reject independence on September 18. But this will not end the UK’s constitutional dilemmas. Indeed, it could intensify them. All three leading UK parties have promised further fiscal devolution to Scotland, with the Conservatives – the lead party in the UK’s governing coalition – proposing that Holyrood be given the power to fix all rates and bands of income tax.
However, this could resurrect the “West Lothian question” – the anomaly that Scottish MPs can vote on laws for England but English MPs cannot vote on matters devolved to Scotland – especially if, in 2015, the opposition Labour party is returned to office without majority support in England and dependent on the votes of Scottish MPs at Westminster.
The union could then come under threat not from Scotland but from England, the only part of the UK without its own parliament or assembly. England is the anomaly in the devolution settlement. Admittedly English nationalism has not yet proved a political force since many still treat being English and being British as interchangeable. But that could change.
Constitutionally, the West Lothian question cannot be resolved as long as devolution remains asymmetrical; with England resisting federalism, either through legislative devolution to the regions or an English parliament. Although the UK Independence party, the nearest thing to an English nationalist party, proposes an English parliament, this does not have majority support.
But the English question is as much political as constitutional. Scotland, through its parliament, enjoys great political leverage; so does London through its elected mayor, even though he has limited powers. The rest of England, and particularly the great cities of the Midlands and the north, have far less clout. They show no inclination towards regional devolution and, excepting Liverpool, have rejected directly elected mayors.
The imbalance between London and the rest of England coincides in part with a social cleavage between the prosperous and those without the education and skills needed to prosper, the source of much Ukip support. Notably, London was the only part of England in the recent European Parliament elections where Ukip did not come first or second.
There is a developing consensus, led by Lord Heseltine for the Conservatives and Labour’s Lord Adonis, for devolution to England, and in particular fiscal devolution to local authorities, perhaps grouped into city regions. Local authorities would keep a portion of receipts from property taxes and business rates. The constraint on council tax increases could also be lifted.
Government in England is more centralised than on the continent. This is much criticised. But so too is the idea of a “postcode lottery” in which benefits and burdens depend on geography rather than need – an inevitable side-effect of decentralisation.
The constitutional principle of ministerial responsibility is a further barrier to decentralisation. If ministers must account to parliament for deficiencies in public services, they will make sure they have the powers to match their responsibilities. When, as now, there are concerns about Muslim extremism in Birmingham schools, parents blame the government. They are not mollified by being told to consult local councillors or officials. It is we, the people, not power-grabbing politicians who are primarily responsible for our centralised political culture.
Local government does not offer as strong a focus of loyalty as the Scottish parliament or local authorities on the continent. Turnout rates are among the lowest in western Europe – 30-40 per cent – so local authorities enjoy a weaker mandate than the House of Commons.
Devolution in Scotland could lead to an acceptance of diverse public service standards in England also. Until then, however, radical decentralisation in England is unlikely. We are stuck with an asymmetrical and unbalanced constitution. This is the price that England, the most powerful nation in the UK, pays for maintaining the union with Scotland; and after all, as Disraeli noticed, England – perhaps he meant Britain – is governed not by logic but by parliament.
The writer is professor of government at King’s College London and author of ‘The Coalition and the Constitution’
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